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Biden Plans to Conserve 30 Percent of America’s Lands

Achieving 30 by 30 on private lands will require the durability of easements and the flexibility of short-term incentive programs. One such approach could be conservation leases with terms of 20 to 30 years that are palatable to landowners while providing meaningful protection. These programs would be less expensive than land purchases or easements, providing new ways for corporations and philanthropists to underwrite land protection at a scale much greater than can be achieved through the outright purchase of land.

The Biden administration can find many useful models of large landscape conservation encompassing both public and private lands. In the East, America’s Longleaf Initiative, a coalition of government agencies, nonprofits and corporate and family forest owners, is restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem that once extended from Texas to Florida and north to Virginia. Since 2007 this work has driven an extraordinary recovery of the longleaf pine ecosystem to 4.7 million acres from 3.4 million acres.

In the West, the Agriculture Department’s Sage Grouse Initiative has secured easements on nearly 700,000 acres of private land across 11 Western states — including areas of Wyoming and Montana that are part of the world’s longest-known mule deer and pronghorn migrations. This initiative has increased sage grouse nesting and foraging habitat on a further seven million acres by working with ranchers to restore grasslands, streams and wetlands.

Americans generally support land conservation, but differ over how it should be carried out. A survey published this year by Duke University suggests that while rural Americans care deeply about conservation, they do not trust big environmental groups like those that have pushed 30 by 30. Instead, they prefer policies overseen by state and local governments that foster collaboration with communities. A failure to engage rural Americans is the fastest way to ensure collapse of 30 by 30.

The administration must also recognize the violence, displacement and marginalization that have often accompanied land conservation. Native Americans and other peoples of color have been largely excluded from U.S. conservation policy, and many of them, living in cities, view public lands as remote and unwelcoming. A successful 30 by 30 strategy must encompass needs as diverse as tribal priorities and urban green spaces in historically excluded communities. Mr. Biden signaled a commitment to environmental justice last week when he said he would nominate Deb Haaland, a congressional representative from New Mexico and a Native American, to lead the Interior Department, which manages more than 440 million acres of federal land.

So where does the Biden White House begin? The administration should move quickly to develop a science-based plan and lay out an inclusive process. At the same time, the sheer scale of the vision will require taking the time to coordinate across the entire federal government and with state, local and tribal governments. With careful planning, the Biden administration can ensure that 30 by 30 doesn’t die as a fleeting national aspiration, but sets the course for a truly inclusive conservation vision.

Arthur Middleton and Justin Brashares are professors in the department of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley.

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